Yet again, Alex Pham found himself in juvie, this time a nine-month bid for a gun charge. The 16-year-old was no stranger to the system — this was his fifth time incarcerated. But something was different about this juvenile camp. A Good Samaritan named Harry Grammer was running a rap-centric class called F.L.O.W. (Fluent Love of Words), designed to teach poetry and beats to boost self-confidence in young inmates. Pham’s friends had heard him banging out beats on the lunch tables and freestyling and encouraged him to check out a session of F.L.O.W.
“Bless the mic,” Grammer told Pham that day almost a decade ago.
“Freestyling is my favorite thing. But I was nervous,” Pham recalled. “They put the mic on. They played the beat. And I was getting looks from all these gangsters, these Mexicans, these Bloods. Then I put the earphones on, I closed my eyes, and I started freestyling. When I finished and opened my eyes, they all started shouting, ‘Ahhhh!’ Like going crazy and shit, like, ‘You could rap! You could rap!’”
Now 25, Pham raps professionally under the moniker $tupid Young. With his sing-songy Long Beach flow and on-camera charisma, the Cambodian American gangster rapper rhymes about Cambodia Town and the pain of losing fellow gang members. He wears a gold medallion around his neck emblazoned with a photo of his friend Dirt, whose violent death inspired much of $tupid Young’s most recent album, “One of One.” The lyrics for “I Remember” include:
“Dirt got shot a gang of times by the 40/ Then we lost two more at the liquor store/ Sometimes I ask why they had to get that liquor for/ Then I ask God why you take my niggas for?”
In a recent interview on L.A.’s Power 106 radio station, J Cruz got right to the point of contention: “The N-word is said a lot, my G — are people comfortable around you or do you ever get backlash for that?”
“It’s a lot of people outside of Cali, but that’s why I’m working with Vice now,” responded Pham, pointing to Lee Adams from the New York-based media company, who’s following him for a documentary called “Minority Reports.” “I’ma show the world that this is how I grew up. I can’t change it. If I didn’t do music, this is how I talk. This is how I am — prison and all that. So I grew up in that community with the Insane and the 20s Crips. They understand.”
During his childhood, Pham’s father was also in prison, while his mother was basically out of the picture, but when she was around she was abusive to him. So he was raised by his grandparents, who ran a gambling house out of their home. As a boy, he fell in love with hip-hop by watching BET and MTV for hours and memorizing the lyrics to Snoop Dogg, Daz, Kurupt and other Long Beach legends. And when he got older, he joined the same Cambodian gang as his dad, Asian Boyz.
Though he references his culture in his music, his songs resonate outside of the Asian American community. He’s ubiquitous on YouTube, collaborating with just about anyone and everyone while building his own massive following. His song with African American rapper Mozzy, “Mando,” garnered over 17 million views on YouTube with no marketing or promotion.
$tupid Young is on the leading edge of a bubbling underground of gangster rappers of Asian descent. And though $tupid is a huge fan of Rich Brian, Pham and other rappers like him don’t fit into the critically acclaimed 88rising aesthetic of ironic hipster iconography and disaffected middle-class alienation. The stories these gangster rappers tell are also a far cry from the model-minority stereotype that is so often associated with Asian faces.
There have been Asians in hip-hop since its golden era of the mid/late ’80s and early ’90s. Cue history slideshow: Christopher “Fresh Kid Ice” Wong Won (R.I.P.) was a founding member of the legendary 2 Live Crew from Miami. The Mountain Brothers made some significant noise with their jazzy brand of boom bap in the ’90s. And you simply can’t have a conversation about Asians in hip-hop without the looming presence of MC Jin, the first Asian American to sign to a major label when he joined Ruff Ryders in 2002. Though MC Jin wasn’t a gangster rapper per se, he came up at a time when “hardness” and “realness” was considered an essential ingredient in constructing a credible rap career. Now, with the self-deprecating dorkiness of Lil Dicky, Rich Brian and, honestly, Kanye West, reality rap has been subsumed by self-aware rap.
In many ways, this new generation of Asian American rappers are actually a throwback to the golden age of gangster rap. But this time around they don’t need major labels like Death Row or Ruthless to reach their audiences. With Instagram, Soundcloud, YouTube and other social channels, makers and consumers of streetwise hip-hop can find each other without a middle man or a major label to broker the connection.
China Mac (Courtesy photo Jaye Sant)
If $tupid Young is Asian America’s Snoop Dogg, then China Mac would have to be our Notorious B.I.G. With his complex wordplay, verbal dexterity and vivid storytelling skills, China Mac, whose government name is Raymond Yu, represents a New York state of mind. Like $tupid, China Mac is a second-generation gangster. His father was a member of New York Chinatown’s Flying Dragons.
In the deeply introspective “Who I Am,” China Mac reveals the turning point from naive little boy to disillusioned thug.
“I was six when the feds came knocking on the door/ Me and my momma home/ They came searching for the ‘ro/ I didn’t know what was going on/ Found out pops got caught slipping/ Somebody gave them word that bird’s in mom’s kitchen/ They came through deep/ Woke my momma out of sleep/ I followed her down the stairs though my body weak/ I was staring out the door at the sirens in the street/ Who I thought was a hero transformed into a thief.”
As an act of rebellion against his father, Yu joined a rival gang, the Ghost Shadows. And at the pinnacle of MC Jin’s success in the early 2000s, a cadre of Asian American gangster rappers clung to Jin in hopes of finding their own success. Yu was home fresh from prison, packing a gun and looking for a reason — any reason — to fight. He arrived at Yello, a club in New York’s Chinatown, feeling “erratic,” as he revealed in a comprehensive interview with Vlad TV in 2014.
“I took myself to a point where I’m going to lay somebody down that night,” he told journalist and host DJ Vlad. “It wasn’t for Jin, it wasn’t for the other dude. My mind was there already. Son said he pulled out the knife. So I turned around and pulled out the hammer immediately. And I had the hammer in the back of his head. Right at the top of his spine and I pulled the trigger. I had the 40 cal. And I pulled the trigger. Thank God, the shit jammed.”
Yu injured rapper Christopher Louie and walked out the front door of Yello. After a year of living off “nuts and grass” and the kindness of his supporters, Yu got busted in Seattle with a fake passport at the Canadian border and went down for an 11-year prison term at Riker’s Island.
During his various stints in prison, his face was sliced and his neck was stabbed — experiences that have fueled his music. “We make songs about what we know, the experiences that we’ve been through. I talk about the pain that I’ve been through — that’s what people connect to the most. It comes from a space that is real — real emotions, real experiences,” he said.
When China Mac got out of jail, MC Jin sent him a letter. “He just basically wanted to see where I was at with the whole situation, and I told him that he doesn’t have to worry about anything,” China Mac told KORE over the phone from Brooklyn. “I served my time already, and as long as he doesn’t have a problem, I don’t want a problem. It wasn’t like he was in the street; he was just somebody I lashed out at. So I didn’t feel like he owed any type of street thing; I didn’t hold that against him. It’s like me robbing a convenience store and the convenience store pressing charges on me. If I robbed a convenience store, that’s my fault. That’s the same way I felt about Jin.” MC Jin could not be reached for comment.
Another artist who cited MC Jin as the proto-Asian rapper who started this particular movement hails from the Deep South. With his almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones, Ace B (born Altonio Jackson) looks Asian, but was raised in a black household. He doesn’t know his father, but was told that he was half-Cuban and half some kind of Asian. And even though Ace B was raised in the notorious Calliope Projects of New Orleans where his mom was also raised, he had a hard time finding acceptance in the black community. Still, he embraced street life, learning how to tattoo to stay alive.
Ace B (Courtesy photo Terence Doakes/One Shot Filmz)
In his music videos, he rhymes in a thick Southern drawl about fast cars, loose women and drug-running over the deeply thumping, rolling bass drums that characterize No Limit-style production.
“You could live for nothing/ Or you could die for something/ I’m a hustler, boy, everything I touch be made of money/ Ride through my city with double cups in my cup holder/ A dirty pistol brand new rental I’m movin’ soda.”
“They hated me at first,” Ace B said over the phone from New Orleans. “They were like, ‘Who is this Asian kid saying he out the hood, tatted up and got a fake gun in the video? He’s not like that!’ I never let that get to me. I just said, ‘You don’t know me. I’m talking my stories. Believe it or not.’”
It helped Ace B’s cause when hometown hero Master P vouched for him, signed him to No Limit Records and cast him in his various hood movies. “P came around and understood me; he said, ‘He out my project.’ They wanted my background, and P said, ‘He’s black! He’s mixed with black! He ain’t just what you thought he was.’ So now it’s easier for another person. I went through it already for the next person, for the next generation.” His biggest fans are his tens of thousands of female admirers on Instagram gushing about his exotic looks with comments like, “Plz tell me why and how TF u r sooooo mf F-I-N-E,” and “You is so handsome.”
Beyond Ace B, China Mac and $tupid Young, there are scores of Asian American rappers to be discovered by the mainstream. Consider P-Lo, who is not a gangster rapper, but who makes melodic, trunk-rattling Bay Area rap like his affiliates IAMSU and Mozzy. Southeast Asian rappers like the foul-mouthed Yaya Flow and Queen Honey C tell their own stories of grit and survival from a female perspective. Then there’s Fee, Young Jae, Mbnel — the list goes on and on.
Back at $tupid Young’s house, his childhood friends, including one of Dirt’s brothers, are helping his very pregnant girlfriend unload groceries from the car while he rolls the weed into a tight joint. Nowadays, he stays in downtown Los Angeles instead of Long Beach. “I like it,” he said, looking around at his new living room. “It’s cool. I don’t gotta watch my back.”
And that’s important because Pham and his girlfriend are expecting their first son in November. When asked what his hopes are for his child, he said, “My hopes and dreams for my son is that he be better than me. My dad said that his hopes and dreams for me was to be better than him. And I told him, I am.” He paused before continuing, “When I dropped my first video on YouTube, I was still a kid and heavy into gangbanging deep. I wanna take the music seriously now. There’s a lot of talent out there that got a story to tell.”
This article appears in KORE’s December 2018 issue. Subscribe here.